Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central theme of this story is time. Who is in charge of it when it comes to an individual’s life—the individual himself or the managers of this world? The elderly provide Barry Targan with an especially poignant example of this question. Time is precious for them because they do not have much of it left. The assumption of the children of the elderly is that fun for their parents consists in spending their time doing as little as possible and nothing strenuous. Martin Vemish represents a different view of time. To him, time is equal to an individual’s life, and as an individual is in charge of his own life, he should be in charge of deciding what to do with his own time. This is why Vemish rebels against Booth’s itinerary on the SS Solar. Vemish, for his son’s sake, may have taken a vacation he does not want. His son Herbert, after having suffered a string of business failures, needs to feel successful, and to do this he must be allowed to handle his father’s business alone. Vemish had made the store a success and had made his own choices on how he would spend his personal time or life, so how can he deny this to his own son? However, Vemish will never allow someone such as Clifton Booth to take charge of his time. He has paid (if reluctantly) for this setting, but not for Booth’s tyranny over his time.

Indeed, the significance of “Old Vemish” goes beyond the plight of the elderly, for at bottom it addresses itself to the tyranny of modern management itself, to corporate control of individual lives. Vemish is the hero who takes a stand against this kind of control—first against the corporation (Macy’s Department Store) that tries to run him out of business, then against the one (the Lootens Line) that tries, in the form of Clifton Booth, to take over his vacation. Corporate management is the villain in this story, and part of the story’s attraction is the triumph of personal time and value over those who would steal them in their own interest.